French president Emmanuel Macron launched a charm offensive towards his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Monday, talking of multilateralism and cooperation and tip-toeing around subjects such as human rights.
In a meeting during a bilateral three-day state visit to France, Macron took the unprecedented step of inviting the German chancellor, Angela Merkel and the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, to Paris for the talks.
The French government described it as a “high-level meeting on the challenges of multilateralism”. Officials said the presence of Merkel and Juncker for the state visit was unprecedented.
All four leaders stressed a wish for greater cooperation between the EU and China at a press conference afterwards. They also knowledged they were rivals and there were concerns about unfair competition and continuing coordination on climate change.
Macron wants to deepen EU ties with China while creating a more level playing field for trade. The French president thanked Xi for his support to counter climate change but also urged his Chinese counterpart to “respect the unity of the European Union and the values it carries in the world”.
Xi responded that a prosperous EU was in keeping with China’s vision for a multipolar world and said the two were advancing together despite suspicions.
As Macron spoke he frequently turned to Xi for a response; Xi looked straight ahead expressionless apparently listening to the translation. When Juncker, earlier pictured clasping Xi’s hands warmly as on the steps of the Elysée on Tuesday, spoke, the Chinese leader turned to him.Xi Jinping and Jean-Claude Juncker. Photograph: Somer/News Pictures/Rex/Shutterstock
Juncker said: “China and Europe must and can do great things together. We are strategic partners and, yes, rivals, but competition among us is a good thing.” The commission president cut to the chase, urging Beijing to give EU companies the same access to Chinese markets as Chinese companies enjoy in the EU.
Earlier, Xi said France and China should build their relationship on “mutual trust, practical cooperation and friendly sentiments”. In his speech, he agreed there was competition between the EU and China and said this was positive.
He spoke of “win-win outcomes” between countries who explore ways of getting along with each other, based on “independence, mutual understanding, foresight and mutual benefit”. He added that China needs a united and prosperous Europe and urged it to adopt a coherent strategy in dealings with Beijing.
There are concerns in Europe about Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, a Chinese plan involving development of infrastructure and investments in 152 countries that Beijing says will improve regional connections. Others see it as a push by China to dominate global affairs.
Xi began his six-day trip to Europe with a visit to Italy, followed by Monaco and France.
On Monday, Beijing and Paris signed deals worth around $40bn. China announced it would buy 290 A320 aircraft and 10 A350 aircraft from the European consortium Airbus.
François Godement, a senior adviser on Asia at the Paris-based thinktank, the Institut Montaigne said Macron’s call for Germany and EU representatives to attend the bilateral state visit was unprecedented but in line with Macron’s commitment to greater EU integration and reform.
“The meeting is also an answer to China’s very stubborn bilateralism and is meant to demonstrate a coordinated European stand,” Godement told the South China Morning Post.
France and Germany have lobbied for the EU to adopt policies to help European firms compete with China. The EU’s recently published strategy document, a 16-page report entitled EU-China – A Strategic Outlook, urges the EU to recognise China as an economic competitor and “adapt to changing economic realities and strengthen its own domestic policies and industrial base”.
The EU foreign policy leader, Federica Mogherini, told reporters the bloc’s position on China was “very complex and balanced”, but added that “China is also a competitor in certain fields and there is also a strong need from European Union member states to defend their interests, in particular when it comes to security or key infrastructure”.
A full China-EU summit will take place in Brussels on 9 April.